Mechanical properties of biomaterials are difficult to characterize experimentally because many relevant biomaterials such as hydrogels are very pliable and viscoelastic. Furthermore, test specimens such as blood clots retrieved from patients tend to be small in size, requiring fine positioning and sensitive force measurement. Mechanobiological studies require fast data recording, preferably under simultaneous microscope imaging, in order to monitor events such as structural remodeling or localized rupture while strain is being applied. A low-profile tensile tester that applies prescribed displacement up to several millimeters and measures forces with resolution on the order of micronewtons has been designed and tested, using alginate as a representative soft biomaterial. 1.5% alginate (cross-linked with 0.1 M and 0.2 M calcium chloride) has been chosen as a reference material because of its extensive use in tissue engineering and other biomedical applications. Prescribed displacement control with rates between 20 μm/s and 60 μm/s were applied using a commercial low-noise nanopositioner. Force data were recorded using data acquisition and signal conditioning hardware with sampling rates as high as 1 kHz. Elongation up to approximately 10 mm and force in the range of 250 mN were measured. The data were used to extract elastic and viscoelastic parameters for alginate specimens. Another biomaterial, 2% agarose, was also tested to show versatility of the apparatus for slightly stiffer materials. The apparatus is modular such that different load cells ranging in capacity from hundreds of millinewtons to tens of newtons can be used. The apparatus furthermore is compatible with real-time microscope imaging, particle tracing, and programmable positioning sequences.

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